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Exploring the Diversity of Asana Yoga: A Guide to Different Styles and Practices


When we think of yoga in the West, we instantly think of poses and shapes made with the body.

Yoga, however, is not strictly a physical practice. Asana, or poses and postures, is only a mere fraction of what encompasses the practice of Yoga. (Another blog post topic!)


Most people in the West come to their yoga practice through asana, including myself. I sought out the physical practice of yoga not realising the depth and breadth of Yoga (big 'Y' Yoga vs. little 'y' yoga). And if this is you, then welcome!!!! What a magnificent place to begin your journey inward!


So you've decide you want to take up physical yoga (or yogasana), and are looking at different studio timetables and offerings, or even online via YouTube and other websites.

But you are left confused as to which class/style would be best for you. Have no fear, I am here to break it down for you and to help you navigate the seemingly endless styles and trends of yoga classes in the West.


Hatha

First and foremost, ALL physical yoga is Hatha Yoga.

Hatha means "forceful". This path of Yoga (notice the big 'Y') hones the body in order for it to be the vessel to "withstand the onslaught of transcendental realisation" (quote from Dr. Georg Feuerstein's The Yoga Tradition, Hohm Press, 1998). In other words, the body is worked in order to shape the mind and transcend the human condition.


Meditation is a practice as old as time. The ancient sages noticed that in order for the body to sit comfortably in stillness, it needed to be in good shape. Think about when you sit in one position for a few moments: you might notice a pinch in between the shoulder blades, your hips might start to ache, neck stiffens, etc. In order for one to sit and meditate for hours, the body must be fit and healthy enough to maintain stillness for a prolonged period of time.

This is when yogasana began to be developed.


Fast forward to the couple of centuries before C.E., and enter sage Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras. This is where we begin to see classical yoga formatted and codified.

The Sutras set out the instructions on how to practice Yoga.


Fast Forward another 1000 years to medieval India and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, where we see in more depth and detail the science of hatha yoga described and common hatha yoga poses are instructed.


As we go through the list of styles, know that all of these are filed under Hatha .


Hatha yoga as you would encouter in a studio

A Hatha yoga class will often be described with the words "gentle", "slow", and "beginner friendly". Which it is (except for the word "gentle"...if you know me, you know how I feel about using that word to describe ANY style of yoga! What is gentle to someone can be difficult for another, so I refrain from using that adjective altogether).


It is a slower-paced practice compared to a Vinyasa Flow class, which goes from pose to pose with each turn of breath. Due to its slower pace, it is a great place for beginners. But, due to its slower nature, it also can be quite strong,

A good Hatha class will incoporate hasta mudra (hand gestures) and pranayama (breathing excercisess). Bonus if there is mantra as well.


There is time for you to be in a pose, to feel it out on the body, to notice the mind and the breath, and to adjust the pose to fit you.


Not only is it a great place for beginners and those recovering from injury, it is a FANTASTIC class for those who have been practicing for some time. It allows a revisit of poses you might take for granted, to approach familiar poses with a new mindset, and have a chance to explore poses you might not have been exposed to.


This is the class that I absolutely love to teach. Due to the slower pace of the class, I encourage questions and dialogue, which is hard to do in a class where you are flowing from one to the next. I can ask the students how a pose is feeling on their body, and with the anser they give, we can explore the pose then and there and get that " A-HA!" moment where it all -begins to make sense.


Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) is considered the father or modern yoga, as he was the teacher of the founders of Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and Iyengar styles, and has influenced just about every style of postural yoga that has been developed in the last century.


Ashtanga

This dynamic system of yoga, sometimes called Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, was developed by K. Pattabhi Jois around the middle part of the 20th century.

(GIF is of Krishnamacharya, Jois' teacher ->)

This system of yoga has a set series; in fact, it has 6 series, each one increasingly physicall challenging. The last two hold a legendary status as there is no written manual listing the postures for these series, as well as only a handful of yogis in the world claiming to have undertaken them.

Most Ashtanga classes that you will come across in studios will work mostly with the 1st and 2nd series, or Primary and Intermediate, respectively. The will all begin with sun salutations, or Surya Namaskars, to warm up the body, and then a sequence of standing postures, followed by seated, and then a finishing sequence, with most poses being held for at least 5 breaths, if not more.

The primary series had a big emphasis on forward folds, whereas the intermediate brings in more backbends.

This style of yoga is traditionally practice in what is called Mysore style; its a self-led class, where everyone works at their own pace, with a teacher circulating the room, giving hands on adjustments where needed. Once or twice a week there will be a fully led class by the teacher.

It is a very dynamic and strong practice, perfect for early mornigs (traditionally it is practiced at 6am). Due to its set sequence, once you learn it, you know exactly how the class is going to go,and you can guague your progress. If you're anything like me, though, you might get bored of the sameness! I need variety in my practice! This is where the next style comes in.


Vinyasa

Viniyoga, Vinyasa Krama, Vinyasa Flow, this style has a few names it can go by.

A vinyasa is an element in styles of yoga like Ashtanga; it is a linking mechanism from one pose to another, pairing breath and movement. Vinyasa was developed by TKV Desikachar, also around the mid-20th century, but a little later than Ashtanga.

There is no set sequence, leaving it to be a free-form yoga and allowing the teacher to come up with their own sequence. It can be quite dynamic, depending on who is teaching, however, you can also find "slow flow" classes. There is an emphasis on fluidity in movement, sometimes only being in a pose for a breath or two, which can make it hard to feel the posture in the body and to make sure it is being done correclty. Often times other styles of yoga will be blended into a Vinyasa Flow class. There are no set rules for this stlye.



Iyengar

Iyengar is named after B.K.S Iyengar, the man accredited to bringing yoga asana to the West.

Ashtanga ( and thereby Vinyasa) and Iyengar all come from the same Krishnamacharya lineage. All of these styles will have some similarites, but they also differ greatly.

The Iyengar style brings in heavily the use of props as to achieve accurate alignment. Blocks, straps or belts, blankets and chairs are utilized, sometimes all in the same pose!

It is very precise in the precision and alignment, and you will be in one posture for several minutes as the teacher adjusts the pose on you. For this reason, Iyengar is great for those recovering from injury, those new to yoga, or those wanting a deeper understanding of the mechanics of certain asanas (poses). There is a lot of room for questions and dialogue, and you will find that in one 60 min class you may only execute 3 or 4 poses.


Yin

Yin yoga is a slower-paced, passive class where you will hold poses anywhere from 3-5 minutes, or even longer. The longer held postures target the ligaments of the joints and fascia and connective tissues (vs. yang-style yoga like Ashtanga which targets the muscles). This system is the synthesis between Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and yoga, which work with meridian lines (known as nadis in yoga), or energetic pathways that flow through the body. The energy is called chi or qi (prana in yoga).

These currents of energy connect tissues and organs, and the intertior of the body with the exterior. By keping these energy channels free from blockages and stagnation, we can keep the body and mind healthy.

The nature of yin yoga also forces the practitioner to focus inwards. When you are holding a pose for a prolonged period of time, there is nowhere to go but in! As one of my teacher said inthe past, yin yoga can be very confrontational, as it it just you, your body, and your mind. It is the reason why I avoided it for years and years! But I have coe to recognize it for an invaluable tool in my yoga practice today.


Restorative

Also a practice that is known for its longer held poses, this system of yoga is designed more for your nervous system that for your structural body.

The main goal is deep relaxation, and that is obtained with the heavy use of props. The body and joints are fully supported so that it can let go of any tension or gripping. A complete surrender, if you will.

This stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system (our rest and digest mode, vs. fight or flight), enabling the heart rate and breath to lower, as well as cortisol and other stressors, boosting immunity and increasing the body's natural capacity for healing.

This is perfect to balance out a busy lifestyle and schedule, and for when you are feeling under the weather.

Pregnancy/Postnatal

Exactly as it sounds like, these classes are aimed for those pregnant and recently postpartum. Pregnant and postpartum students can attend regular classes, just as long as they or the teacher are aware of modifications that need to be taken during these times. The pregnant and postnatal body has different needs than those not, and absolutley must be taken into consideration.

In addition to a class that specifically suits the pregnant/postnatal body, it is a great space for community during times of such tremedous change, a place for those to vent, trade information and just feel like they are not alone during this period.













Original Hot Yoga or 26+2

(formerly known as Bikram)

This style of yoga comes from a different lineage that from Ashtanga and Vinyasa.

Also a set sequence, it comprises 26 poses and 2 pranayam (breathing excercises) in a 90 minute class, held in a room heated up to 40*C (104*F). It does not flow in the sense like Ashtanga and Vinyasa does, but looks a bit like a traditional Hatha class where the poses are held for a certain number of breaths and no fancy transitions between postures.

You do see nowadays hot vinyasa, hot yin, etc. But when you see Original Hot or 26+2, you are going to get the traditional system.


Kundalini

Here we are beginning to delve deep into esoteric territory, and I may do it disservice trying to define what it is and how it works, so bear with me!

Kundalini yoga works with the energetic aspect of the body, or the subtle body, such as the chakras and the nadis.

In Feuerstein's The Yoga Tradition he defines Kundalini as a "psychospiritual force" that dwells in the human body....[T]he kundalini is a microcosmic manifestation of the primordial Energy, or Shakti. It is the universal Power as it is connected with the finite body-mind".

(See what I mean! Heavy!)

The kundalini is dormant in every body, and is located at the very base of the spine . This particular kind of yoga works to awaken it, leading to an intense psycho-spiriual experience. It is for this reason that it is sometimes regarded as a very risky practice, unless guided by a highly knowledgable teacher. Awakening it to fast or incorrectly, it is said, can lead to states of psychosis.

Kundalini yoga works with pranayama as well as kriyas, or repetative movements, the chanting of mantras, use of mudras, or gestures, and meditation.


Others

This is where things branch off in to multiple directions so much it makes my head spin.

You may see: Dru, Forrest, Baptiste, Anusara, Jivamukti, Sivanada, Integral, Kripalu, Power, Rocket, Daoist, the list goes on and is growing even as I type this!

Just know that all of these are Hatha yoga, and will encompass more or less the same elements as ones mentioned above.

Why it branches into so many directions is that by the last quarter of the 20th century, students of the likes of Iyengar, Desikachar, and Jois began to formulate their own styles.

(You can check out this yoga lineage tree here .)

You also have aerial yoga :











And SUP (stand-up paddleboard) yoga:











And Yoga Wheel yoga;











I don't have a problem with these as they are using unconventional props to get in to postural yoga in a different way.


What I do have a problem with is goat yoga, puppy yoga, yoga that mixes alcohol in it (Now, I do love a tipple, but I would never combine the two!) and any other gimmicky "yoga". Yoga doesn't need gimmicks. Yoga is Yoga. I saw someone somewhere on the interwebs say that martial arts doesn't need to have puppy karate or goat taekwondo. Why does yoga? Alas, this is a topic for another time.


I hope you found this list somewhat helpful! It is a vast, wide world, the world of Yoga, and its traditions are some 5,000 years old. Sometimes that thought is overwhelming, but it's also wonderful to know that there is always something new. There is never the end of all there is to learn about Yoga. And we have a lifetime to explore!


Hari Om Tat Sat




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